In early March, President Barack Obama delivered a much-heralded address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on the subject of educational reform. Near the midpoint of his speech, the president uttered this revealing sentence:
“My sister is a teacher, so I know how tough teaching can be.”
It has become a commonplace in modern politics for presidents to advertise their understanding of the lives of ordinary mortals. Bill Clinton regularly felt our pain. George W. Bush so frequently began sentences with the phrase “I understand” that it was almost tempting to believe him.
In that tradition, President Obama — whose teaching experience is limited to constitutional law classes at the elite University of Chicago — now claims a vicarious understanding of the challenges facing public school teachers. In truth, it would be as possible for him to say:
“My wife, Michelle, has delivered two daughters, so I know how tough giving birth can be.”
For decades, politicians and opinion makers — most of whom have never faced a classroom except as guest speakers — have been issuing pronouncements about how to fix public education. In general, the more of their ideas we adopt, the worse our educational systems get.
In this respect, the president's address to the Hispanic chamber was better than some. He embraced several useful ideas, such as longitudinal tracking of students' progress, higher pay for math and science teachers, and removing state restrictions on the establishment of charter schools. But he also proved that he doesn't know what veteran teachers know.
A few examples:
Schools in other nations are “spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and more time teaching things that do.”
While this may be true, Mr. Obama betrays his ignorance of the fact that — in the United States — there has been little serious research into curriculum for decades, while graduate departments of curriculum studies have virtually disappeared. In short, we lack the research base essential to judicious curriculum reform.
Meanwhile, in the core areas, our high schools continue to teach pretty much the same subjects — in the same order — as they did to the Greatest Generation in the 1930s.
Ironically, the imposition of standardized testing has had the effect of exacerbating our curricular sclerosis. Today, curricular reform would also involve changing what subjects are tested, developing tests for new subjects and determining how to compare scores earned before and after the reform.
The more centralized curriculum and evaluation become, the more our outdated secondary curriculum will become set in stone.
Our nation's governors and state education chiefs need to develop standards and assessments that don't measure simply whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st-century skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.
As appealing as this idea sounds, two decades of standardized testing have produced a generation of administrators more concerned with the results of multiple-choice tests than with teaching higher-order thinking skills. Moreover, many outstanding teachers have left the field because of standardized testing.
In their place comes a generation of young teachers — themselves the products of the standardized-testing regimes. It remains to be seen how well they will do at teaching what they themselves were barely taught.
“It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while holding them more accountable.”
Here, the president resorts to a favorite rhetorical device — arguing both sides of an issue. The whole accountability movement is based on an attitude that regards teachers as blue-collar, assembly line workers who cannot be trusted to design their own lessons and whose output can be quantified.
In truth, the best teachers — the ones we remember from our school days — work a sort of magic which is impossible to quantify. Moreover, true teaching professionals — like doctors, lawyers, and clergymen and other professionals — are held accountable only to themselves, their peers and perhaps a Higher Power.
“I'm calling for us. ... to rethink the school day to incorporate more time — whether during summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it.”
While this proposal has merit, the president seems unaware that our schools have, in recent decades, effectively reduced the amount of time actually devoted to teaching a given subject.
In Virginia, for example, secondary schools that replaced daily 50-minute classes with alternate-day, 90-minute blocks have effectively reduced instructional time by 15 hours per course, per year — the equivalent of eighteen days.
Add to this the month of dead time between the administration of Standards of Learning tests in early May and the official end of classes in mid-June, and the loss is equivalent to two months of actual instructional time.
Before extending the school year into the summer, Obama should consider recovering the 20 percent of instructional time already sacrificed to block scheduling and early testing.
“[D]ropping out is ... not an option anymore.”
The president would like to believe that students who remain in school do so at no cost to their classmates, but the reverse is usually true. American teachers spend as much as half of their instructional time on classroom management — not actual instruction. The more reluctant learners we retain in our schools, the more they will disrupt their more motivated classmates' attempts to learn.
“[W]e will help meet our responsibility as a nation to open the doors of college to every American.”
While idealistic, the fact that college education is now available to virtually any high-school graduate with a C average has markedly reduced the incentive to study while in high school. The more we make college available to everybody, the more meaningless a high school diploma will become.
All in all, it is heartening that President Obama has taken a serious interest in improving public education, but this is nothing new. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush also claimed the mantle of “education president,” with the primary result being increasing federalization of our schools — further distancing the locus of power from the very people most aware of what needs changing: the teachers. S
'Rick Gray, a local actor, blogger and beekeeper, served as secretary of the commonwealth from 1978 to 1981. He also taught history at Midlothian High School, the Appomattox Regional Governor's School and elsewhere.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.